Beijing is yours to discover with our list of unmissable sights and activities
1. Great Wall
Built between the fifth and 16th centuries, The Great Wall of China - the longest wall in the world - is arguably the symbol of China and no visit to Beijing is complete without making a pilgrimage to this UNESCO World Heritage listed site. Or as Mao Zedong himself once put it: “He who has not climbed the Great Wall, is not a true man.”
However as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Wall - built to function as an impenetrable line of defence - can get crowded. If you don’t fancy sharing the Great Wall with tonnes of tourists, visit on a weekday in winter. And skip the Badaling section of the Great Wall (which attracts the lion’s share of tourists owing to its proximity to Beijing) and make for Mutianyu or Simatai. Alternatively if you’re feeling adventurous and want to get off the beaten track, seek out un-restored sections such as Huanghuacheng. Popular with hikers, Huanghuacheng is only 48 miles north of Beijing but feels a lot further owing to the lack of crowds. Lots of tour companies include The Great Wall as part of a Beijing/China itinerary but it’s easy to visit many sections of the wall independently by bus or taxi.
Lastly if you’re in town in May, don’t miss the Great Wall Marathon - one of the most picturesque yet toughest marathons in the world. Over 3,000 runners runners from all around the world sign up for the annual event which involves some 20,518 steps.
2. Forbidden City
Beijing has a wealth of historical sights but the magnificent Forbidden City - which took more than one million labourers over 15 years to build - is arguably the linchpin of Beijing’s tourism. Once the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it is now recognised as one of the five most important palaces in the world and also, at 74 hectares, the world’s largest.
Beijing’s most spectacular site earned its name because in the old times, law forbade entrance to the complex unless the Chinese Emperor gave his permission. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, The Forbidden City compromises 980 buildings - so don’t scrimp on time - and serves as superb example of Chinese palatial architecture.
Rectangular in shape, the structure (called Gu Gong in Chinese), is surrounded by a six metre deep moat and a 10 metre high red wall with a gate on each side. The Forbidden City is divided into two parts - the northern and southern section. The former is where the ruling emperor exercised his power while the latter is where he lived with his royal family. Both sections are home to an array of rare treasures and curiosities. In total, 14 emperors of the Ming dynasty and 10 emperors of the Qing dynasty reigned at the Forbidden City.
For Instagram worthy pictures of the Palace, climb the Coal Hill in Jingshan Park (just north of the Forbidden City).
3. Traditional Chinese Medicine Cultural Tour
Don’t miss the chance to try Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and discover for yourself that, in the words of Mao Zedong, “traditional Chinese medicine is a great treasure”.
Based on five interdependent branches compromising exercise, nutrition, herbal medicine, massage and perhaps the most familiar ingredient of all, acupuncture, TCM aims to balance your yin and yang and ward off disease and illness. Today TCM - which has a history of over 4,000 years - is more popular than ever, perhaps because it chimes perfectly with the modern wellness mantra of illness prevention over cure.
TCM centres abound all over Beijing but Tai Shen Xiang He Villa comes highly recommended. Located at Bei Qing Lu, Huilongguan in Changping district, Tai Shen Xiang is home to many veteran traditional Chinese medicine specialists who will happily offer their expertise. Elsewhere the villa’s traditional Ming and Qing architecture and beautiful natural garden scenery combine to make it the perfect place to master the ancient art of Tai Chi.
Visitors can learn a little more about TCM over at the Museum of Chinese Medicine at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. Covering an area of 1,500 square metres, the museum continues to play an important role in the international exchange of TCM between China and the outside world.
4. 72-Hour Free Transit Visa
Thanks to blockbuster sights suggest such as the Great Wall and Forbidden City, Beijing is top of the bucket list for a lot of travellers but obtaining a tourist visa isn’t exactly hassle free. The amount of detail required on the application (expanded from two to four pages back in 2011) plus the steep fee proves a little off putting to say the least. The good news is that passport holders from 45 countries - including the UK, the US and Australia - can make three-day visa-free visits to the Chinese capital provided they have a valid passport as well as a confirmed flight ticket (to a third country or region) that will depart within 72 hours. In addition to Beijing, the 72 hour visa waiver programme is valid in Chinese cities such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Guilin, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, Kunming, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan, Xi’an and Xiamen.
5. Tiananmen Square
Only a philistine would leave Beijing without visiting Tiananmen Square. Standing at 880 metres long and 500 metres wide, the world’s largest public square has enough space to accommodate up-to one million people. The square was originally designed and built in 1651 but has been enlarged four times since and is considered the symbol of the People’s Republic and the centre of Beijing’s landmarks. It owes its name to to its location - it’s situated in front of the south gate (Tiananmen) of the Forbidden City.
To the north of the square sits The Tiananmen Gate Tower together with China’ s national flag which is hoisted and lowered every day at sunrise and sunset, by a troop of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers drilled to march at 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace.
The Monument to the People’s Heroes dominates the centre of the square while the Great Hall of the People is on its west and the National Museum of China on the east. Chairman Mao's Mausoleum lies to the south of the square.
Chances are chi fan (let’s eat), is the phrase you’ll hear most often in the Imperial City. Beijing has a thriving local gastronomic scene: there’s over 60,000 restaurants dedicated to feeding you up, in addition to hawker fare and night markets like the legendary Donghuamen. The latter isn’t for the faint hearted (this is a city that adores its meat and subsequently you’ll see vendors peddling silkworms, scorpions, seahorse, snake and starfish and the like) but it’s certainly lens friendly. Choose from food-stalls, then sit and feast with locals eating street nosh like noodles and jiaozi (steamed dumplings) that will have you practically keeling over in bliss.
Another tasty treat is Peking duck and the best place to try it is at Beijing Da Dong Duck restaurant which has built up a reputation for serving superior (leaner) versions of Beijing’s signature dish, in a stylish setting. Be prepared to battle for a booking, but if you get one you won’t be disappointed.
China is celebrated for its tea, which first rose to popularity during the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. As such lost-in-time tea houses abound. However contrary to what the name suggests, tea houses aren’t only a great place for a cup of scented tea (spring), green tea (summer), Oolong tea (autumn), or black tea (winter). Chinese tea houses also serve as prime people watching spots: expect to see elderly Beijingers eating, drinking, doing business, chatting, playing chess and simply enjoying each other’s company.
Many of Beijing’s teahouses also put on traditional performances including Peking opera, pingshu (story telling), acrobatics, puppet and magic shows, folks arts and regional operas. Some of Beijing’s best loved tea houses include Laoshe - named for the noted Chinese novelist and playwright, Lao She and his masterpiece drama, Teahouse - City Impression Tea House and Peace Art Co.
Catching a performance of Peking Opera – Beijing’s oldest art form - should feature on any China itinerary. Regarded as a Chinese cultural treasure, Peking Opera incorporates dance, mime, music, masks, martial arts and acrobatics. Peking Opera has clearly defined roles: sheng (the male role), dan (the female role), jing (a painted face role reserved for men) and chou (the comedy role) and tells stories of romance, intrigue, politics, history, society and the adventures of scholars, emperors and warriors.
Wondering where to see Peking Opera? Look to Liyuan Theatre - one of the most famous Peking opera theatres in Beijing and a good choice for foreigners as screens above the stage translate the dialogue into English. Other options include Zhengyici Theatre (the only surviving wooden theatre in Beijing), Chang’an Grand Theatre, Mei Lan Fang Grand Theatre and Hu Guang Hui Guan Opera Theatre. The latter also houses a small museum filled with photos of famous performers like the legendary Mei Lanfang.
9. Temple of Heaven
Built in 1406, the Temple of Heaven was traditionally a place of worship for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties who used the space to pray for a good harvest. Even the smallest mistake in the prayer ceremony - which involved abstaining from eating meat and wearing special robes - was regarded as a bad omen for China’s crops. Today the Temple of Heaven - which lies on axis directly south of the Forbidden City - stands as a glorious example of Imperial architecture with its curved cobalt blue roofs layered with yellow and green tiles. The principle buildings include the Altar of Heaven (a three-tiered platform upon which emperors would meditate before proceeding to pray to the gods for good harvest), Imperial Vault of Heaven and Circular Mound Altar.
Apart from being Beijing’s most beautiful temple, the Temple of Heaven is also surrounded by pretty parkland, full of people singing, dancing, playing Chinese chess or practicing Thai Chi.
10. MICE Tourism
Beijing’s meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) tourism industry has exploded in recent years following the success of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Convention and exhibition venues include Beijing Exhibition Center, Beijing International Convention Center, China Hall of Science & Technology, China International Exhibition Center, China World Trade Center and The Great Hall of the People.
The capital is also home to a host of prestigious international hotel chains including St Regis, the Ritz- Carlton, Kempinski and Shangri La to name but a few, all of which boast majestic meeting spaces. Other exciting options include functions atop the Great Wall or in an Imperial garden.
Beijing has a myriad of museums but Beijing Capital Museum is arguably one of the best explaining, as it does, the narrative of China’s capital in chronological order through exhibitions and artefacts spanning seven floors. For more history, make for the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution - which was built in 1959 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Zhou Enlai’s plane and Mao Zedong’s limousine are just two of the objects on display. Elsewhere art aficionados will want to check out the 798 Art District in the north east corner of the city. Formerly an old factory district, designed with East German architects, 798 Art District is now home to a cornucopia of great art galleries including the prestigious UCCA (ucca.org.cn).
12. In addition
If or when you need a break from the urban bustle, seek respite in one of the capital’s parks which, for most Beijingers, are akin to a second home – a place to socialise, relax and stay fit. The city is punctuated with parks but Ritan Park is one of the prettiest.
Alternatively escape to the Zhoukoudian - a small village approximately50 km southwest of Beijing, that’s famed for its Peking Man Site. It’s here that a cave - containing fossils, bones and the famous prehistoric man’s skull - was discovered in the 1920s. The Peking Man Site was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Or simply splash about at Happy Magic Water Cube - Beijing's second most visited tourist spot, after the Great Wall. Situated on the site of what was the National Aquatics Centre - one of the iconic venues for the 2008 Beijing Olympics - Water Cube boasts an array of rides sure to put a smile on the faces of both the young and young at heart.
13. Getting around
Located approximately 25km northeast of the city, the award winning Beijing Capital International Airport serves as the entry point to the Imperial city for most travellers. International arrivals and departures use Terminal 2 as well as the new Terminal 3, while all Air China flights use Terminal 3. The simplest way to travel from the airport to thecity proper is to take the Airport Express train (there are stations at both terminals) to Sanyuanqiao (interchange with Line 10) and Dongzhimen (interchange with Line 2 and Line 13). The journey takes around 20 minutes making it a much faster option than the airport shuttle bus and, at 25RMB for a one way ticket, more affordable than taxis. When it comes to getting around Beijing, walking or cycling is the best way to see the city. Everywhere has something of interest, but keep your wits about you: traffic is chaotic and aggressive and pedestrians occupy the bottom rung in the hierarchy of Beijing road users, below bicycles, buses, tuks tuks and cars.
Alternatively use the subway which is cheap, clean, efficient and easy to use - if crowded - or take a taxi. Drivers rarely speak English, which can prove problematic if your Mandarin is less than masterful - but they are a bargain and, unless it’s raining, in plentiful supply.